16 February 2011

Motivation, Responsibility and Idealism - Oh my!

There's a popular phrase that says "you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink". This is true, it seems, everywhere - except for modern public education. The government's latest philosophy on education seems to be, "you can take a horse to water, but if it won't drink then shove its head in, and if it won't drink then, give it an IV. The horse WILL BE HYDRATED."

Every day in my job I see a series of educational dichotomies. It's difficult to wrap my head around the solution - but quite easy to see the problem. It's no wonder the problem of education in this country is so over everyone's head. . .

Problem One: Motivation

What the "education world" says: The educational world will tell you that it is the responsibility of the teacher to motivate students. Students are naturally unmotivated, greedy, grade hungry buggers and they only want to "come, eat and leave" so to speak. Your responsibility as a teacher is to (without referring to specific value sets, but still referring to values somehow) teach in a way that is inspiring to students so that they will somehow eventually be motivated. You can take credit for this motivation. If a student leaves your room unmotivated, this is your fault. Also, you will need to find a way to prove this motivation or lack of through numbers and charts.

What the laws of nature say: It is not my responsibility to motivate anyone, even if it was possible. I have agency for myself. I can create an environment that fosters motivation, but that doesn't mean I am a failure if there are students in my room that are unmotivated. I can't prove that students are or aren't motivated through charts, but I can use my head and my common sense to see if they are motivated or not. If a student is not motivated, it may or may not be my fault. I should not sacrifice time and attention on motivated students in favor of coddling or babying students who are not motivated.

What I see: In my classroom about two hours ago I could have divided the room very quickly into students who were motivated, students who weren't but could be, students who refused to be, and students who weren't mentally capable of it. This isn't based on any degree in medicine or even on my degree as a teacher - it's based on life experience and what I know of my students. Am I a perfect teacher? No. Are there students in my class that I have probably judged unfairly in either direction? Almost certainly. But that's life, isn't it? There are people you get on with and people you don't. People you work well with and people you don't. As a teacher, though, I have the strange responsibility of finding a way to make my personality and life experience resonate with everyone in the room; something I wouldn't ever have to do outside of my job because it just isn't logical. Unfortunately with the way the system is set up, my students (and myself) are both punished by the arrangement, when it's often not the "fault" of either side - it's just people.

What's the solution?: Well - it goes way deeper into American culture than the government would like it to. The thing is: kids have no reason to be motivated. If they don't graduate from school they can get welfare. If they fail, someone will sit them down and tell them exactly what to do. We live in a country where failure isn't an option. Because there are no consequences, there is no reason for responsibility or motivation. To fix education - we have to allow consequences.

Problem Two: Responsibility

For Failing Students:

What the Educational World/National Government says: No Child Left Behind! By 2012 all students everywhere in our country must be passing. This means that we can prove through charts and elaborate systems of standardized testing that every student in our country no matter their educational background won't fail. This will prove our worth as the greatest nation in the world. This also means that if a teacher or school has a student that is failing, they are not adequate (or good) and need careful babysitting. The failure of a student is not the fault of the student. It is the fault of the teacher or school.

What teachers say: If a student fails it is because they are lazy and don't turn work in. In order to accomodate NCLB, I now use only multiple choice tests and completion grades in my classroom. By handing in every assignment, even if it is poorly completed, the student can still feasibly earn a C. It shouldn't be my responsibility to chase after students who aren't turning work in, but I have done so anyway and it still doesn't come in. It isn't my fault if a student fails.

What the laws of nature say: Our failure or lack of failure is our own responsibility. It should not be the responsibility of anyone else - and you should care more about your own future than anyone else. Each person, then, should take accountability for their performance. This means that if a student has a teacher that does not teach well enough, the student should be allowed the right to find a teacher who will teach them well. This means that a teacher should not be responsible for hunting down under-performing students. What's more, the "system" should be accommodating to the variety of types of student there are - some students are more capable than others (for some reason it's easy to acknowledge this in sports but not so much in school), and that is not a crime.

The Implications: Schools should be established in a way that allows students to take responsibility for their education. It should not be the responsibility of teachers to hunt down students who do not turn in work or who do not understand materials. Schools (or at least, more schools) should also not lower their standard - whatever it is - to accommodate those who are not capable of the work required. Grades should mean something and indicate actual competency with skills. Parents should take more responsibility for nurturing their child at home and setting a high standard.

The Problem: Students come from so many backgrounds and cultures that it would be nearly impossible to assume that all will receive parental support. The culture of grades right now is that "A" has become the new "C" and there is no reward for students who are truly brilliant (or real consequence for those who are not.) Students who are not capable of higher level thinking (whether through technical mental disability or not) need places where they can find success without being punished for a lack of "book smart" skills. Schools need funding and if they cannot accommodate a large number of varieties of students it's hard to keep the school open.

There are more that I could write about but I should probably get back to planning my lessons for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that I don't know what the solution is. I don't think that teachers should be blamed for a student's failure if they're a good teacher. I also don't think that every student is meant for every teacher, and that students have a right to a teacher that will reach them. I don't think that unmotivated, impassionate teachers should have the right to the name. But I also don't know what the solution is. It's not an easy one, whatever it may be. But I'm going to continue working as hard as I can to make my job something worth keeping, and to fight for a world where my students can be respected and given the opportunities they have worked so hard to have.